ABC News Corona Virus Government. Response

100 days in ‘hell’: Gov. Andrew Cuomo on his pandemic performance

The New York governor has earned criticism and praise for COVID-19 response.

"We went from the worst infection rate [in the nation] to the best infection rate," Cuomo told ABC News' Amy Robach in an illuminating interview on Tuesday in Albany, New York, about the first 100 days of New York's response to COVID-19 – which began with New York's first confirmed case on March 1 and ended on a small note of triumph June 8, with the partial re-opening of New York City.

Cuomo also credited New Yorkers for following his lead and sounded off on everything from needing a good hug from his mom to his darkest moments -- when the crisis was so severe that he'd privately lean on his memories of his late father and predecessor as New York's governor, Mario Cuomo.

"There were many nights when … I would … get in bed and I couldn't sleep, and I would just be staring at the ceiling," Cuomo said. "And I would say to myself, 'What would he say?' And I could hear his voice, you know? And I knew what he'd say … and that gave me a lot of comfort, a lot of guidance … My father's spirit lives in me. I know what he would say. I know his advice."

As for the three grueling months battling to contain the coronavirus from which he just emerged, Cuomo was obediently -- if colorfully -- concise.

"In one word, can you describe the past 100 days?" Robach wondered.

"Hell!" Cuomo replied, his expressive face broadening into a signature smile. "Can I say that?"

Cuomo said he still doesn't know the answer to his state's $64,000 question: When will New York schools re-open?

"And I don't think that anybody knows," he said. "And anybody who tells you what's going to happen in September? I wouldn't believe them."

'Exponential' spread

New York's governor has been faulted for overseeing a too-gradual shutdown of New York state as the virus raged through the tri-state area earlier this year. Cuomo waited until March 20 to fully close down the state. By April 1, more than 2,000 New Yorkers would be dead.

Even as far less dense urban centers like San Francisco closed schools on March 12 and issued the nation's first shelter-in-place orders on March 17, Cuomo urged caution. Three days later, he closed New York state down, too.

Critics have suggested Cuomo should have recognized the scope of the threat when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began screening incoming passengers from China on Jan. 17, more than two months before the first confirmed New York case. Yet the governor looks back on the early days of the pandemic from a different perspective.

The U.S. West Coast "had cases much sooner than we did," Cuomo said. "They had cases back in January. We didn't have a case until March."

"It was just a terrible blunder, frankly," he said. "But that's why New York had a very high rate of infection" at first, Cuomo said.

He laid the blame for early, severe outbreaks in New York City and Westchester County, at the feet of the federal government.

"We knew in January that China had the virus," Cuomo said. "We must have known – whoever in the federal government watches this – if the virus is in China, didn't someone expect that the virus was going to get on a plane and travel? And it did. And it wasn't in China anymore. It went to Europe … and then we all these Europeans coming here, January, February, March. And nobody knew anything … I mean, when you think back it was really just – an amazing mistake by the federal government."

The governor said the moment he knew he could no longer contain the blooming outbreaks in New York was in mid-March, when a New Rochelle attorney who became the state's second confirmed case proved to be New York's first case of "community transmission" – meaning the virus has silently taken root in a region and is spreading.

"When I saw that explode – it just mushroomed. It was exponential. I knew that there was no containing the exposure."

'Credibility of the government'

Cuomo has consistently argued in recent weeks that a gradual closure was vital to limiting New Yorkers' panic and maintaining public compliance with unprecedented new restrictions on public movement. He told Robach that his strategy was necessary in today's political environment.

"If I had just stood up there and said to 19 million New Yorkers, 'This is what you have to do: you have to stay home, you can't go out, you can't go to the movie, you can't go to work, schools are closed' … Let's be honest: the credibility of the government is not where it was. So, I wanted to give them the facts. I wanted to earn their confidence."

"So I worked at it every day – providing information, providing the facts, the updated facts. And then I would give my opinion … I was very clear to always separate the facts from the opinion."

One of Cuomo's greatest fears, he said, was widespread non-compliance.

"If there's no compliance, you're in a really bad place," he said. "You know, if the government stands up and says, 'You must do this, this, this and this,' and the people say, 'No thanks, you haven't made your case. I don't understand why.' Well, then, it's a really bad situation."

New Yorkers lost

Cuomo said he feels the pain and the loss though not necessarily the blame for the outsized numbers of New Yorkers that account for the national death toll, which on Tuesday evening was nearing 31,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

"New Yorkers who died did not die because we failed them," he contended.

"The goal should be, 'make sure we don't lose a life that we could have saved,' [or] 'make sure no one dies because we failed them,' Cuomo said at another point in the interview.

"What happened in Italy where the hospital system was overwhelmed and people died on gurneys and in hallways, where society failed, government failed. In New York, we've lost people, but we did not lose anyone who we did not give the best medical care to."

"That's how I put my head on the pillow at night and that's how I sleep."

Shortages

Cuomo was reluctant to specify precisely how prepared with supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) New York was at the start of the pandemic but said that no state – including his own – was truly prepared for what hit hotspots like New York and the Seattle area early on.

"Look, no one – we have the best health care system in the country, I believe," he insisted. "I don't believe any other state was more prepared than we were … now, where we did have issues was PPE, the masks, the gowns, etcetera. But that was every state in the country."

A spokeswoman for the governor said that to date, the state has distributed more than 80 million pieces of PPE to hospitals and other facilities in New York, made 90,000 volunteer healthcare workers available to support overburdened healthcare systems, created a central inventory system to coordinate and distribute key resources like ventilators and other hard-to-find medical supplies.

A ProPublica investigation into New York's response to the coronavirus sought to clarify the size and scope of New York's state emergency medical stockpile, but according to the non-profit investigative news outlet, administration officials declined requests to specify the exact contents of the state stockpile prior to the pandemic.

Cuomo Vs. Trump

Cuomo declined an offer to grade President Donald Trump's response at the federal level to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"He can grade himself – or a higher being or the people of this nation will grade him come Election Day."

Cuomo has been heralded for his deft political management of the president's fickle temperament. An April 3 New York Times headline declared that Cuomo Emerges as 'Trump Whisperer' During Coronavirus Crisis.

Yet he readily acknowledged what has become apparent in recent weeks: His relationship with Trump – a fellow son of Queens from across the political aisle (at least as of 2012, when Trump changed his party affiliation for the fifth and final time, from independent to Republican) – may be long, but it's complicated.

"Yes, I know him from New York," Cuomo told Robach. "But we had – politically, we had a very difficult relationship, always, since he was elected."

"We were open and honest in the relationship" at the start," Cuomo said. "And when we agreed, we agreed. And when we disagreed, we disagreed. And I said to him from Day One, 'Forget the past, forget the politics. I'll call it straight the way I see it, he'll call it straight. And when it worked, it worked and when it didn't, I said it didn't."

While Cuomo is characteristically cautious in criticizing the U.S. president, preferring to remain in his own political lane where possible, he makes a point of returning to his own governing playbook.

"I take my position very seriously," he told ABC News. "I put myself in a position where I said, 'Look, I take all the blame. I'm accountable. Buck stops at – on my desk, whatever expression you want to use."

"I didn't try to defer responsibility," he continued. "I didn't try and blame anyone else I didn't point to – local officials or this one or that one. So – I did the job the way I think the job should be done. I respect the office. I respect the responsibility. So I assumed it. I never ran from it."

'A grain of salt'

One of Cuomo's most heralded leadership qualities in recent months has been the compassion he's demonstrated over months of often lengthy daily press briefings, where his seasoned oratorical skills have found a new national audience eager for an alternative to the chaos in Washington D.C.

New York's hard-charging governor, widely considered a master political tactician, seemed gently dismissive of his recent portrayal in the national press as a stern but trustworthy figure.

A Jezebel blogger published 'Help! I Think I'm in Love with Andrew Cuomo???'. A week later, comedienne Chelsea Handler published a heartfelt letter of thanks to Cuomo for his leadership in Vogue, entitled: 'Dear Andrew Cuomo, I Want to Be Your First Lady.'

The governor said he takes it all in stride.

"Look, it's, it's nice," Cuomo said, "but – it is what it is … I've been around long enough to take everything with a grain of salt. You take the positive with a grain of salt; you take the negative with a grain of salt. But to the extent that people relied on me through this – that, I'm very grateful for."

Second wave?

Cuomo was far more animated when talking about the threat of a second wave of outbreaks.

"So many things we still don't know," he said. "I talk to global experts every day, people who have gone through China and South Korea and Italy … But nobody really knows, 'Is there a second wave? Is there not a second wave?'"

He called new spikes in COVID-19 cases in states that have begun to re-open "frightening."

"You look at what's going on around the country with the spike[s] in the number of viral transmissions," he said. "That is frightening. You know, New York is not an island. We can be doing a great job and getting the spread down and the rate of transmission down but – people travel from here to other states" and vice-versa.

"And if it's going up in other states and people get on an airplane and they come to New York we could be back in the same situation we were in."

Cuomo recognizes that he can't control the nation from the governor's mansion in Albany, but he said he's hopeful that what he perceives to be his disciplined model of containment will be replicated elsewhere, now that New York can boast the lowest new transmission rate in the nation.

"We're asking [New Yorkers] to do very difficult things," he said.

"I fight it every day because, you see other states reopening and you want to get on with life and the weather is warm and young people want to go to the beach and they want to hang out in a bar."

"And I'm saying, you know, 'Not yet. Not this. Not that. So, hopefully the trust will help us through this … it's a struggle every day to do the right thing."

Doing the right thing extends to his own family, Cuomo said.

"When are you going to hug your Mom again?" Robach asked him.

"I haven't hugged my mom since this started," he said. "I miss that."

Cuomo paused for a beat.

"I don't think she misses it," he observed with a grin. "But I miss it!"

ABC News' Aaron Katersky, Rachel Katz, Josh Margolin, Ella Torres, Alexandra Smith and the ABC News Investigative Unit contributed to this report.